Yet here it is October 2, 2002 and Carolina Football is still struggling with the basics four games into an important season in the life of the program.
Losing to Texas was not that big a deal. Losing by 31 points was a bit disturbing, but given the talent of the Longhorns and the poor fundamental play of the Carolina defense, the Heels were lucky it was just a 31-point defeat. Coach John Bunting was angry with the play of the defense that day and rightfully so. According to the coaching staff's review of the game film, Texas gained over 200 yards of offense solely because of poor tackling and missed assignments by the light blue defenders.
So, with an open date to work with, Bunting and staff returned to the basics, the ‘fun'damentals if you will. The Heels spent nearly two weeks focusing on correcting the correctable mistakes of missing tackles, missing assignments and misalignments. Correct the errors from the Texas game in those departments and a successful season would take place in Chapel Hill.
As the Heels worked on the basics, Georgia Tech took two major shots to the gut with the losses of its best two players, Greg Gathers and Tony Hollings.
Tech has a powerful running game, but could a freshman carry the burden and be successful? Surely not, at least in my opinion.
Tech's defense stuffed BYU without Gathers, but Carolina moved the ball consistently on the vaunted Texas defense, and with or without Gathers Tech is no Texas. Right?
Georgia Tech came out and took the Heels to task. If the ‘wounded animal' theory was ever appropriate in sports, this was the game. The Yellow Jackets were beat up and mentally fatigued given the events of the past couple of weeks leading to Carolina. And they played like a tiger backed into a corner with nothing to lose.
Carolina, meanwhile, had two weeks to prepare for a team that has ‘owned' the Heels for the past four years. With the ACC season opener upon the Heels, everything else that happened before September 28th was over. Done. Finished. Saturday it all began anew.
And the Heels laid an egg.
Aside from the devastating loss and what it does to the prospects of a successful season, how the Heels lost is most disturbing.
There is no shame in losing. There is no shame in losing when you are out-manned at every position on the field. There is no shame in losing when you fight the good fight, do things right, give 100% yet still lose.
But when the opportunity to win is lying at your feet and all you need to do is pick it up and run with it and get the win, yet it slides from your grasp – literally in the Heels case – then what?
It's easy to blame the coaching staff, the lack of talent, the referees, the fans, the band and whoever else comes to mind. I'm guilty of several of those way too often myself.
But at some point, you have to suck it all up and get it done. Short of Sam Aiken and Dexter Reid, no one on this Tar Heel football team has done that consistently this season.
The coaching staff can only do so much. It's their job to put the players in a position to win, and I can't find fault in the way they've done that. Sure, it's painful to see the QB draw run way too often, especially when 60K fans and the entire Yellow Jacket contingent know it's coming. And sure, everyone would like to see CJ Stephens at least get a shot with the first teamers on the field.
But realistically, the Heels have been in a position to win every game this year, Texas included. But they've not come through – especially on defense – and sadly, it's not the youngsters at the fore of the costly mistakes. Freshmen mistakes are acceptable as long as they are made by freshmen. Too often, it is the Carolina upperclassmen making the game changing errors. (Bunting did the right thing when he sat Michael Waddell on the bench in favor of a young Chris Hawkins in the second half Saturday. If redshirting freshmen was not so important, I'd like to see more of that done from here on out. But I digress.)
This week, we'll see what this team is made of from the top to the bottom. Playing out in Sun Devil Stadium against the resurgent Arizona State football team will be a daunting task. Sophomore quarterback Andrew Walter leads the nation in passing efficiency and freshman running back Cornell Canidate has the ability and the bloodlines to cause the Heel defense problems.
If ever there was a time for the Carolina team to make a statement, this Saturday is it. I think that statement will be made on the direction this season is heading.
The only question is, which way?
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